That Inner Critic!

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Theodore Roosevelt

Do you know Brene Brown? She can perfectly quote these words from Theodore Roosevelt and does so often. If you listen to or read her enough, you can inhale the basics even if you cannot manage the entire quote yourself. The key phrases are: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…” and “…if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

In case you are one of the two people who have never heard of her, Brene Brown is The Expert in American culture on shame, guilt, vulnerability, courage, bravery and daring greatly. Books, TED talks and podcasts are everywhere, so if you don’t know of her, you have plenty of chances to be introduced to her and to learn. Google will get you there, as will a search on YouTube TED Talks. She has the credentials to be an expert. And she pulls no punches.

I have spent my life feeling as though I never measured up, never got good enough at anything. Always fell short. I didn’t have the “smarts” or talents to make a difference. Even if I did something well, I always found something to keep myself from unabashedly cheering.

Does anyone out there relate? Yes, well. There is a reason why Brene Brown is so incredibly successful. Shame and vulnerability hit a chord with all of us. If they don’t, you’re probably a narcissist, and that isn’t so good, either.

I spent three hours on Wednesday as a volunteer in a Mayo Clinic/Olmsted County Clinic cooperative Study on Aging. My Better Nature had signed up months ago to be a subject, and I finally got the call to set up an appointment. I was feeling good about doing this and looking forward to the three hours that it would take.

I was going to enter the arena. Be vulnerable. Be brave. Serve future elders.

I had heard stories, though…

The Study on Aging is heavy on looking at dementias, so memory work is a significant part of the time the volunteer spends with clinicians. I was dreading that. I’ve never had a great memory, especially for minute details. Not even when I was younger.

The first two hours went swimmingly. I was acing this!! I was going to be the great subject against which everyone else would be compared! I could actually remember and say back lists of 5 random words, 6 names and 10 numbers!!

Remember how pride can be our downfall? About that…

The last hour with Jillian was the Great Downfall. With every step backward, my shame and vulnerability and fear grew into monsters that mocked me and, finally, made me cry.

I was a failure. I could only remember about 7 random, unassociated words out of perhaps 25 after three consecutive readings.

Two long stories were to be repeated back as accurately as possible, keeping events in order and remembering as many details as possible.

I remembered that a woman named Anna something got robbed somewhere and went to a police station to report it. Her rent was due and she only had a few dollars left after the robbery. The police took pity on her and took up a collection. 6 details of maybe 25. But in order…there was that…

I remembered that a guy named John something was driving a 10-ton truck down in the Mississippi Delta, had some sort of accident that pushed him forward and his chest was injured as it hit the dashboard. He wondered how he could get help given that the road was deserted and it was late at night. Again, maybe a few details out of 25 or more.

Adding to both of the stories was my own: “Wait a minute! What was that again? Wait. What…Martha, what is wrong with you?!”

I could feel the tears of shame rising – then beginning to overflow. Jillian gave me a tissue, some sympathy and a moment to collect myself. I was failing!

Then came the 4 red and white blocks that I had to arrange into proscribed patterns. I aced it! My confidence was returning. I was going to be okay.

Next, she added 4 more and the designs became more and more complex. The last three I couldn’t even come close to finishing.

I was totally defeated. I had strived valiantly and failed. As I left the clinic, accompanied by Jillian, I could hardly utter a word, normally an impossibility for me.

Age-related problems had whittled away at my ever-vulnerable self esteem, one mistake after another. Daring greatly was long gone. I was a failure as an elder now, too. Not good enough. Embarrassingly inept. Dumb.

When I got home, I wolfed down two fat pieces of Sara Lee Pound Cake and napped for 3 hours. Why not?!

When I awoke, the spell was broken.

I remembered a conversation from last week with the elder women of my book group. One remarked that she had been noticing how much more difficult it was to retain what she was reading. We all perked up and agreed! It was true. And it is one of the marks of the aging mind that we begin to recognize as it shows up for all of us.

I then remembered that during my cancer treatments, I was constantly faced with making quick decisions and I hadn’t seemed to be able to get from “here” to “there” to solve them readily enough. A processing problem, common to elder years.

It turns out that I’m not a dumb person after all. I just easily fall into old patterns of self-doubt and succumb to that vulnerability that makes me want to run from the arena and hide. In the end, I had dared greatly and I had spent myself “in a worthy cause.”

I’m okay now. I’m probably an “average” elder for age 80, and I fortunately don’t have to arrange blocks in a default configuration every day.

And so it goes…